Sure, Evangelical Numbers are Steady… But at What Cost?

The Christian Post recently published an article by Kevin Shrum which claimed the Church is not solely to blame for recent declines in Christian religious affiliation or church attendance. That decline, he argues, must be understood in light of “the motives of the unchurched and unbelieving.” What we are witnessing, according to Shrum, is a thinning of the orthodox herd, a separation of the men from the boys, so to speak. Real Christians, those committed to the “narrow way” of “holy living,” will remain in the Church, while the closet “Nones” will continue to drop off.

Daniel Schultz wrote a cogent response to Shrum, claiming his emphasis on orthodoxy and personal holiness may eventually backfire in an increasingly pluralist, spiritual-but-not-religious nation like our own. Those who eschew Shrum’s “narrow way,” explains Schultz, do so not out of some rebellious response to a pure Gospel. Some have already written off Christian faith as a necessarily exclusivist belief system. Those that haven’t simply crave a less divisive, more socially engaged faith. They’re tired of Culture War posturing and are now seeking out faith communities that practice less exclusionary forms of Christianity.

Schultz’s point of view has been corroborated by ample social scientific research. Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campell reached the same conclusion in their landmark 2010 study.

Yet, if more Americans are coming to dislike this holiness-heavy brand of evangelicalism, how do we explain that tradition’s uniquely steady rates of participation and affiliation? Virtually all other Christian traditions have witnessed precipitous declines in recent years. Why not evangelicals?

Schultz offers a generational explanation:

Conservative churches do fare better these days than liberal ones, though the sociologists tell me that’s mostly the result of their later adoption of birth control. The cultural trends are the cultural trends, even if they do take longer to catch up with some groups than others.

This dynamic may be at play here; in fact, I’d be surprised if it weren’t.

However, it’s only one among many possible explanations, many of which may in fact coexist. Could there also be something about evangelicalism’s theological rigidity that, in itself, attracts believers in pluralistic environments?

I believe there is.

In 1995, Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism turned the conventional social scientific wisdom on its head with regard to this question. Far from withering in the face of modernity’s liberalizing encroachments, evangelicalism continues to thrive precisely because of its (perceived) embattlement against trends like those described by Shrum. This sense of embattlement, argues Smith, “strengthens in-group identity, solidarity, resource mobilization, and membership retention.” It accentuates that elusive—and for evangelicals, necessary—line between “us” and “them.”

I agree with Schultz in thinking that this strategy, while successful in promoting a sense of solidarity and belonging among existing evangelicals, will likely end up alienating wide swaths of the unchurched and unbelieving, the very people evangelicals claim to have in their evangelistic crosshairs. Telling people with legitimate grievances against the Church that it’s their fault they don’t want to go to Church can only lead to more people leaving the Church!

Moreover, the Gospels pretty clearly teach that “othering” religious outsiders is not the way Christians are meant to relate to their neighbors, something Daniel Kirk convincingly argued in a recent post. He calls readers’ attention to Jesus’ command to let our lights so shine before people so that they will see our good deeds and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

“Do you see what Jesus did there?” Kirk writes. “He put the judgment of our works, as the people of God, into the hands of the outsiders. It’s we who are to shine, and the people of the world who are to see the light and recognize it as such.”

Yet, when people encounter the “us” versus “them” mentality employed by Shrum’s ilk, rarely—if ever—do they see it as “light.” This fact is belied by the very trend Shrum set out to address: people leaving the Church, and doing so in droves. For this reason alone, it should be abandoned.

However, we must continue to ask why this strategy—one that, in Shrum’s case, pits the faithful few against a consumerist majority—continues to rear its ugly head. Is it a purely generational phenomenon, or does it offer some kind of social-psychological comfort to its practitioners? My sense is that both factors are at work, although we should be careful not to forget the latter.

If we assume the phenomenon is largely generational, then those looking to affect change within the evangelical camp need only wait until the oppositional strategy falls out of fashion. If, however, there are other, social-psychological reasons for believers to adopt approaches like Shrum’s, we may be waiting for a long while.

More broadly, articles like Shrum’s are further evidence of the fact that evangelicals need to conduct some serious self-examination on these questions. They must ask themselves whether this oppositional mentality comprises a core component of who they are. In other words, if they were to drop the discourse of “us” versus “them” altogether, would they cease to be evangelicals at all? Moreover, without such vigilant policing of theological and social boundaries, would their movement “lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless?”

In addition to alienating a large numbers of millennials, evangelicals’ boundary policing has led to the ousting of numerous talented scholars from their institutions of higher learning. Fuller’s Daniel Kirk, Eastern University’s Peter Enns (formerly at Westminster Theological Seminary), and Northwest Nazarene University’s Thomas Oord come to mind.

The “us” versus “them” disposition clearly benefits evangelicals in a variety of ways. Individual believers may take comfort in the ability to easily identify one of “us” in an increasingly diverse society, political leaders can use it to mobilize the powerful white evangelical voting bloc, and of course it does seem to, for the time being at least, keep church attendance from going the way of the Mainline.

But at what cost? What negative consequences emerge as a result of viewing the world through this lens? Who are they leaving in their wake? These are the questions Evangelicals ought to be wrestling with at least as earnestly as questions of affiliation and attendance.


  •' NancyP says:

    The perception by non-“conservative evangelical” people that conservative evangelical religion is all about “us vs them” is widespread. Some non-CE people are looking for boundaries, a refuge from choices, an “in-group” to belong to; some non-CE people run in the opposite direction. There will always be takers for an “us vs them” church.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Good article. In addition to these points, we might want to also look at the current politics since fundamentalist Christianity has been connecetd to one side of the political spectrum for the last few decades. There is tension building up here around an important issue, the Iran deal. It has reached an insane level, with congress sending an open letter to Iran telling them not to make the deal with our president because Republicans were going to kill any deal anyway. Now Republicans are backed into going against the rest of the world except the hardliners in Israel. They will fight even though there is so many ways that could turn to disaster like Iran following the deal anyway and reconnecting economically with the rest of the world leaving us out. Where does this all lead? It is kind of like the sands are shifting, and building the potential for a great political earthquake. The same for Christianity. The world wants to progress, and it does slowly change directions. But the evangelical church has found its niche in resistance. This attitude of resistance might be the one thing still holding it together. But that can’t last forever. We are headed for an earthquake. You can see it on issue after issue. When the quake hits, it will be unpredictable all it touches, and the evangelical world could collapse in every way. Something has to give.

    This is an issue that we can all agree on and look forward to. Progressives can see it as a reallignment that will knock down old structures that need to go. Eangelicals can think it will be the time of Jesus’ return when God destroys their enemies and makes the world see the evangelicals are God’s favorites. Is everybody happy?

  •' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    There are other ways for Christians to be counter-cultural than living in either evangelical or progressive ghettos — for example, the ‘Christian left’ are inclusive evangelicals who emphasize deeply biblical issues like political advocacy for the poor and oppressed and environmental stewardship (does anyone know how their numbers are doing?)

    I spent a year in India in the nineties on a ‘friendship evangelism’ mission where I lived in a compound with two other Christian families teaching English to middle class Hindus … we had all agreed not to proselytize non-Christians but to simply live out Christian principles in a visible public way … so for example we refused to pay the bribes necessary to have water and power hooked up and went months without either … it wasn’t long before curious Hindu neighbors started conversations with us about why we would chose to do something so strange … I’m thinking this same model could work in our ultra-consumerist culture in America?

  •' Gideon says:

    My opinion is that an oppositional mentality is indeed a basic component of evangelical identity. Assuming that the definition of evangelicalism demands that individuals be explicitly saved, then there must be a way to distinguish the saved and the unsaved, as well as something to save them from. Erasing the line between saved and unsaved is only feasible if the very concept of saving is discarded.

    (Or if “saving” is reduced to nothing more than promoting generalized ethical living. Of course, at that point, the belief system is a closer fit to UU than the usual “evangelical” category.)

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Sure, that makes sense in today’s world, but if your belief system was constructed by ancient people many hundreds or even thousands of years ago, what is seen as good in a belief system might not be recognized as good by people in general today.

  •' Dummheit01 says:

    Southern Baptists and other evangelicals are losing members too. As an evangelical myself, I have seen the steam come out of the movement in the late 80’s. Since then, there has been a steady and slow loss of members but more importantly, there is a lack of dedication and vitality that marked the evangelicalism of the 70’s and early 80’s. The exception seems to be the charismatic element which has proven popular throughout the world. Many evangelicals (myself included) have turned away from the movement as it has been wracked by immorality, financial theft and cover ups of abuse.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    It was probably a mistake when they sold their soul to the party of the rich. Christian vanity wedded to Republican greed can be a powerful religious combination in the short run, but in the longer run it is bound to be devastating. Whatever reason there might have been for being religious in the first place is gone.

  •' Rmj says:

    I wouldn’t classify the “Christian left” as “inclusive evangelicals,” since the latter term has a rather specific reference and, while I consider myself both “Christian” and “left” (in the political and theological, more or less, sense), I don’t consider myself an “evangelical.” Except in the older sense of the word: a messenger of the good news.

    Which is better expressed, as you say, by the way I live, than by the way I proselytize or preach. It’s an older method, one attributed (among others) to St. Patrick, who reportedly spread Christianity in Ireland by deed, not word. And there are the words attributed to St. Francis (in one form or another): “Preach the gospel constantly. Use words, if necessary.”

    I’d rather be an evangel that way. Yes, it would work. Could it build mega-churches, or even churches that would satisfy the institutional demands of mainline denominations? In the context of this article, I think that’s the critical question.

  •' Rmj says:

    Sociologists will tell you that any group thrives in part on the erection of very clear boundaries. The question is: what are those boundaries? The MO Synod of the Lutheran Church will have nothing to do with any other Christians (I know this from experience) and officially considers the Roman church the “whore of Babylon.” It’s very exclusive, but it isn’t exactly burning up the charts (so to speak) of church growth.

    Evangelicals tend to preach a gospel very comfortable to most Americans. It’s very much a product of American culture. So it will always be an easier sell than non-CE teachings. The decline in church attendance, really a decline since the post-war peak (an anomaly in its own right) perceptible because of the Baby Boomers and now Millenials not going to church with the dutiful devotion of their grandparents (and great-grandparents) is really a return to status quo.

    In the early 20th century 41% of Americans reported to the Census that they were affiliated with a religious organization. That rose to over 80% near the very end of the century. If we get back to 41%, we’ll just be back to where we started a century ago (and it will take some time yet to get to that point).

    There are major shifts in American culture underway, and those currents do not steer people toward the church (which used to have the Sunday monopoly, competing only with football, which had the decency to start in the afternoon. That change in culture alone cannot be overlooked.). Then again, Eliot saw community (which churches now emphasize as one raison d’être) decaying in England in the early 20th century, so we’re seeing changes that work on generation and century long measures of time.

    I’m reminded of what Chiang Kai Shek reportedly said when asked about the French revolution: “Too soon to tell,” he replied. Perhaps we need a longer view of history to get the right perspective.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The battle for the church might be longer than you think. You can work towards returning to the concept of the word is a messenger of the good news, but the next issue will be what is that good news, and is it really good? Concepts that were not challenged before will be challenged going forward.

  • It seems that your hostility to those who actually want to follow God vs. those who want a religion to just fit their own worldview makes the point for Shrum.
    Remember, the world is at ENMITY with God. So most people reject living a true Christian life because their heart is in the world.
    The Entertainment industry, secular Education establishment & especially Social media have been major culprits in pushing this mindset (as pushed in this article by USC Annenberg). When one has the likes of people like Elizabeth Warren at a major political convention use the Bible to justify class warfare (i.e. hate & coveting of other peoples wealth) or a President claiming the “Christian” label, but buying into the myth of macro-evolution as he visits “Lucy” saying he “touched” our “ancestor” or using Scripture to justify big, intrusive government programs to expand government dependency as a source for votes–it confuses people.

  • The IRAN deal lets IRAN get nukes….we are also giving the top nation state that sponsors terrorism 150,000,000 dollars which the community organizer admits on camera will end up in the Iranian military. Also, all sanctions are lifted as money pours into Iran. Only an imbecile in congress would support the Iran deal.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Iran can build nukes now, and the only way to prevent it is for us to bomb them and destroy enough of their infrastructure that they can’t do anything. The deal allows inspections and reducing their peaceful nuclear program to a small fraction of what it will be without the deal. There are people on both sides of the question. The neo-cons and Netanyahu think it is a bad deal and we should kill it. Of course they oppose everything Obama does and their prime objective is as long as Obama is president, they want America to fail. On the other side, favoring the deal is all the other countries besides Israel, and many top generals and strategists who were not pushing for the Iraq war in this country, and many security and military experts in Israel. As Obama has explained, we can’t just tell Iran we want to start over and negotiate again. The rest of the world including Russia, China, and Europe have made this deal, and the Republicans in congress can’t kill it anyway. The world will be doing business with Iran in spite of the Republicans. The Republican resistance will just make us look like idiots, which the Republicans certainly are. Iran would be a natural friend of the U.S. if we would only stop mistreating them. This all started when Eisenhower sent the CIA to destabalize the democratic government in Iran by starting riots to topple the government so the west could set up a dictator of our choice who would let us have control over their oil. If we could just admit that, and apologize, I am sure the Iranian people would forgive us and become our friend.

    We would not really be giving Iran 150 billion anyway. It is their money, that we have been keeping from them, and all for problems that we started in the first place. Besides, the discontent in the middle east is kind of different points of view. We now know Netanyahu has no intention to allow a Palestinian state, and is going to continue taking Palestinian land and doing what he can to discourage them and maybe push them out. I think you would have to say the Israelis are the main terrorists, and they are in control.

    it is questionable for us to be so afraid of Iran getting a nuclear bomb when we have allowed Israel to have them, and even use them to threaten the region. Isreal wants to be the sole power in the region, and they want to bomb and weaken all their neighbors. They already have for all the others except Iran, and now they want a war with Iran too. We can’t fix the region without acknowledging that fact.

  •' 4 WIW says:

    Interesting twist on the “light of the world” concept. Scripture also teaches that Christians are to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. It is this “in but not of” paradigm that separates true Believers (some of which are classified as evangelicals) from those going through the motions of religion and the “nones.” By ignoring the “salt” metaphor that is joined with the “light” metaphor in Christ’s teaching it is easy to forget that our purpose as Believers is to not only be a witness (light) but also a preserving agent (salt) for culture. It is the teachings of Christ and the works of His Spirit-lead followers that has resulted in the elevation of women and children, building of hospitals and orphanages and a multitude of other institutions who’s purpose is to elevate man’s life conditions. The problem with all of these things is that we have made them gods to replace our devotion to the one true God.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    From our point of view, the rich have used their position of political power to slant the law to favor them over the rest of us in every possible way. We see the class warfare as long having been waged by the rich against us, and now some people are waking up to that fact and trying to react to it. At that point the propaganda of the rich tries to condemn class warfare so that they can continue to wage their war with no opposition. In this war they are the enemy, and since they have bought the Christian voting block, the conservative Christians are the enemy too. If the rich had been fair with the rest of society from the start none of this would have happened. It is their fault, and unfortunately the bulk of Christianity bought into their propaganda and for that they are at fault too.

  •' alwayspuzzled says:

    All followers of Jesus make a decision with respect to His role as the “Son of Man”. Are all men His brothers, or are only the select few His brothers? There will always be a sizable number of followers who choose the “select few” option. It provides a sense of certainty and legitimacy that some people find psychologically very compelling

  •' Jim Reed says:

    That’s true. You can’t have some who are better without having others who are not as good. Religions help you decide.

  •' cgosling says:

    Evangelical-fundamentalist churches will survive and well they should. There will always be those who need the fairy tales of their church as children need fairly tales of nonsense and entertainment. Some fairy tales teach morales and social justice and some are for entertainment and to pass the time. It does no harm to have an institution that offers comfort to those who need it, but when radical religion of any sort interferes with nonbelievers and government, there is where the line needs to be drawn.

  •' Well_Read says:

    Growing up as a Baptist we weren’t to associate with people who weren’t christian. Since most people were it wasn’t a problem. Even though there was little chance of us ever meeting a non christian back then we were still warned that they would poison us away from christ and start us ‘back sliding’ into sin.

    The fox christian news channel often shows people who claim that ‘jesus got me through it’, they have people on to give testimonials that they were nothing before they found jesus, etc. It divides their audience. As christianity declines their audience will necessarily. It’s an us or them message. Perino even went on to say she ‘hates’ atheists.

    But the real reason for the decline is scientific discover continues to close the gaps in knowledge people used to use the bible to fill in. Science has closed the ‘how did we get here’ gap and the ‘what happens when we die’ gap for objective people. We can look at a sunset and reason why it looks like that through what we now know with science.

    Finally there is the fact that there is zero proof of any god, zero proof of the jesus of the gospels, and proof that those stories never happened. Religion was made by people for people who needed something to bind them together that couldn’t be proven wrong. There is no god, now lets move on?

  •' Craptacular says:

    “Remember, the world is at ENMITY with God. So most people reject living a true Christian life because their heart is in the world.” – David Cousins


    I would say most people (in the world) reject living a “true christian life” because they don’t believe christianity is the supreme being’s (should one exist) sole true religion. It would be like me saying you don’t live a true muslim life because you hate mohammed, or allah.

    Which brings me to my second point. I didn’t make an enemy of your god, it made an enemy of me…through your belief. I am no more an enemy of your god than I am an enemy of santa, the easter bunny, or the tooth fairy. It’s your belief that your god uses the term “enmity” when describing our non-relationship, not me.

  •' 4 WIW says:

    In another era this sentiment was stated as “religion is the opiate of the people.” Karl Marx is long gone, but Christianity flourishes around the world. True Christianity is not merely religion – it is a Spirit-filled entity that will endure until the end of time.

  •' 4 WIW says:

    I’m interested to know the explanation that science provides on how we got here. Please explain. Thanks

  •' cgosling says:

    4WIW – The spirit filled “entity”, of which you speak, will certainly endure until the end of the earth, as I so stated in my comment. Many outstanding historical individuals are no longer with us as is true for Karl Marx. But surely we cannot discount what they said simply because they are dead. Although I do not champion Mr. Marx, he is most certainly correct about religion being the opiate of the people. For that matter, so is the Internet, hero and movie magazines, food, booze and drugs. And, you are wrong about Christianity; it is merely one of thousands of religions, and not the largest or oldest by far.

  •' Fired, Aren't I says:

    Interesting. Here I assumed when Jesus said to give away all of one’s material wealth it meant literally that. I must have missed the part where he said “I’ll give you all these loaves of bread but I really shouldn’t because it’ll make you dependent on handouts.”

    Then again, as a Jew, I have no horse in this fight.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I don’t think you would appreciate it. You might like the Garden of Eden story.

  •' phatkhat says:

    The gorilla in the room that no one has directly mentioned is the authoritarian personality. People who are authoritarian followers WANT a rigid set of rules to follow, and leaders to tell them how to follow. They account for a fair portion of the populace, and rigid religions and political views are comforting to them.

    Do read “The Authoritarians” by Bob Altemeyer. His revised edition has a whole chapter on the religious right. It’s free to read online, or you can buy a hard copy at Amazon or elsewhere.

  •' alwayspuzzled says:

    “the world is at ENMITY with God.” In Genesis 1:31, God looked at His completed creation and saw that “it was very good”. How can God’s “very good” creation be at ENMITY with Him? If God’s “very good” creation is at ENMITY with Him, then He was wrong about it being “very good”. If He was right about it being “very good”, then it cannot be at ENMITY with Him.

  •' Kangaroo52 says:

    Something clicked when I read this: I always knew when right-wing evangelical fundamentalists would smugly claim that the Mainlines (Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) were losing members and right-wing churches were surging as if 100% or close to it of those who left the former funneled directly into the latter, that some part of the equation was missing, and you have provided the money shot! The later adoption of birth control by more evangelical-fundamentalists did indeed account for a larger pool of individuals feeding into their churches, which is certainly petering out now. Like other movements, the religious right is by and large composed of pieces of paper or cyberentic ethera like who signed an online petition, etc. Thus leaders claim thousands of more followers than the remnants which actually attend The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now (my title for the fashionable megachurch “everybody” is going to based upon the edifice of the late comedian Flip Wilson’s “Reverend Leroy” character). We Methodists in particular must put up with a coterie of preening peacocks – one right-wing UMC divine wears his hair in a 1950s “Surfabilly Pomp” ala the teenage heartthrobs of 1958 – claiming irrefutable evidence that we’re going extinct like the Dodo Bird and Passenger Pigeon, knowing their bluster is composed primarily of hot air.

  •' Fired, Aren't I says:

    Lemme guess, you’re one of those christians who’s just SO CONCERNED about Israel’s existence. Trust me, us Jews are not eager for your help, considering your endgame is Jesus coming back and murdering anybody who hasn’t yet converted.

    Community organizer. Cute. Well, he’s got at least 6 years experience as president now.

  • Evangelical identity depends upon telling yourself that you’re a real Christian while other Christians are lukewarm. Psychologically it’s very self-fulfilling. Feeling “persecuted” is a great way to cope with the oblivion and anxiety of antiseptic suburban living.

  •' Jonathan Abbatt says:

    That was Zhou Enlai, Communist premier, not Chiang Kai Shek, the last nationalist leader of China. In 1971 during Nixon’s visit. But some think the remark was ‘lost in translation’ and he was actually referring to the French revolts of 1968. Still a great story, even if garbled. Same thing happens when we quote the Bible!

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